(Some possible spoilers ahead)
I saw a film that surprisingly impressed me this weekend. That film, you might reasonably guess correctly is ‘Marvel: Avengers Assemble’ (long UK release name henceforth referred to as Avengers). I grew up with animated series like X-Men, as well as the Marvel Action Hour in the early-mid 1990s and although X-Men has not been as impressive in its film incarnations, I have always been drawn to characters like Iron Man and Captain America. I think Marvel Studios and the Marvel Empire at large recognise that a good amount of money can be made from fanboys.
So why was this film so awesome? There were many elements, going to see the film with friends who mutually appreciated the Marvel Universe did help. Seeing the overweight nerd men with bald heads and their Captain America and Thor paraphernalia did make me feel at home, of course I’m nothing like them (I was wearing an Iron Man t-shirt). The question of ‘who’s your favourite?’ came up. There is something about ensemble films that are immensely attractive to the public consciousness, I suppose that is why so many people enjoy films such as The Godfather.
I was thinking of the Marvel Universe earlier last year when I was reading through the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft? Why, because there is a sense that I feel that Lovecraft had an earlier notion of a grand narrative unifying many stories through the same universe in the same way that the Marvel comic universes do. There is something almost operatic about creating imaginary worlds and entertaining creative space within them. For too long people have undermined or scoffed at these media forms as either lowbrow or base or childish, the same is said for computer games as an artform; comics and the graphic novel as a literary form.
Getting into superheroes got me into Homer. If you want to call superhero mythology base, then consider the pages of gruesome violence in Homer’s Iliad. Consider the use of supernatural imagery in the likes of Milton’s Paradise Lost when you consider super powers and demigods as childish.
Thinking with more critical lenses lately, I was thinking about the nature of the characters in the Avengers film. It was notable for instance that it was an almost all male affair, however the presence of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is not an obviously feminine or trope-like character. I thought that it was of note that her character showed the most vulnerability which seemed linked to her gender, but I am willing to be convinced that the depiction of vulnerability may have been set up as a ruse in one scene with Loki, or when she was present with Bruce Banner’s character, she had a genuine sense of fear that anyone would at the power of Banner’s alter ego. It’s also fair to say that many of the male characters showed a sense of vulnerability, especially towards the endgame of the film. There was a sense of futility and hopelessness among all of them which also served as a bonding moment between the characters, as well as between us (the audience) and the characters.
After I saw the film, I noticed an online discussion about one specific issue. The character of Loki uses an antiquated expletive in the scene with Black Widow where he refers to her as a “Mewling Quim”. I really don’t know what to think of this. It has been argued by the critic Mark Kermode (who surprisingly rates the film quite well). I didn’t notice this or know about this word when I saw the film, however it seems of note that a small number of (adult) viewers discovered this slight. This term requires a bit of context and apparently has regional significance. I was listening to a podcast last week on Radio 4 by Will Self who talked about the philistine trend of critiquing books for using words that are considered verbose or that many readers are not familiar with. The use of unusual or difficult language should be applauded, although there is some real power to the insult that Loki says which distinctly symbolically feminises Black Widow as a way of undermining her.
I might say a bit about the portrayal of vulnerability in the other male characters. Robert Downey Jr’s ‘Tony Stark’ shares his experience of mortality with Bruce Banner (well played by Mark Ruffalo, who was once better remembered by me in the lame film ’13 going on 30′) and both characters address how their special powers are also a source of difficulty and pain for them. The power source of Iron Man is also the very thing that keeps him alive and dependent, and Stark speculates that Banner’s Hulk is similarly a source of self preservation as well as destruction. A caring side is shown in the characters which gives wider dimensions to them. Stark has his lover Pepper Potts, Thor shows some concern for his friend Jane Foster and Agent Coulson is a beloved character to all of them. It may be that I am overplaying the femininity of Black Widow’s vulnerability in that many of the other characters show moments of emotional turmoil or depth. I wonder if this film passes the Bechdel test. Considering that there were only two main female characters in the film I suspect not, but there is hardly an emphasis on romance or sexuality. I noticed in one billboard appeared the actress for Maria Hill, the agent working under Nick Fury, even though she was not as prominent a character in the film, it was nice that an important supporting character was featured.
This was a film that had it all as far as a fanboy as myself is concerned. The drama, pathos, comedy and action elements of the comic and cartoon world put in a film experience. I’m really glad that the film impressed me as it did, as I have quite low standards for films after many disappointments, many of the films leading up to the Avengers, for instance were hit and miss. There is a sense in which this film seems to capture a mindset of the status quo. The plotline of the tesseract as a form of ‘clean’ energy is an interesting one of contemporary relevance. The clandestine behaviour of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their borderline unethical plans reflect a distrust of institutional authority. The coda of the film where various talking heads talk about the Avengers and the range of opinions about them reflect a media age where criticism and a variety of views and fears are addressed, some of these threads of discussion in the coda are addressed in the comic and animated incarnations of the Avengers and wider Marvel comics (such as the Civil War story arc).
What more can be said of this film? Awesome actors, great action and a genuine sense of surprise about much of the plot: I didn’t expect one Avenger to be so noble and powerful compared to everyone else (the one who ‘defeated’ loki). The comedy mixed in well, plus I did the embarrassing thing of jumping at cinematic moments of surprise. I don’t think anybody noticed though. A great soundtrack by Alan Silvestri, who is also known for such great films soundtracks as Predator. A film soundtrack is as important as the plotline or dialogue. I saw the film in 3D IMAX, and I must say that I don’t think I noticed a specific 3D or IMAX scene, as it seemed indistinguishable to the rest of the film. Is that good or bad? I don’t know.
One thing is certain, if and when a sequel of this film is made (sequels are the name of the money making cinematic game), it has a lot to live up to, and sometimes past success is the most difficult marker of critiquing a sequel. I normally expect about one good film a year, but seeing The Hunger Games makes 2012 a year of prospective positive expectations. I’m quite looking forward to the coming Ridley Scott ‘Prometheus’ film, as well as (excuse my primal tendencies) Expendables 2. However having met the quota of good films already I have no expectations.